Tall Cool One

Darin Back

Terry Hempleman answers his cell phone from his buddy's sweltering shop, where he's making cabinets to go in his central Minnesota cabin. When I suggest that having such ability is a cool thing indeed, he lets out a fairly mirthless laugh. "The problem with having a skill like this," he says, "is that you wind up using it."

Of course it's not the only craft Hempleman pursues. For years, he's been among the Twin Cities' leading actors, and so far in 2005 no local theater artist has explored a greater diversity of roles--"roles" as in "characters" and as in "functions." He's acted at the Guthrie, played a raving lunatic at the Fringe, directed one of the most popular shows at the same summer festival, and stepped into the precarious waters of small-venue producing. This fall he takes a starring role at the Jungle and attempts to exorcise the ghost of Alan Alda.

So although many thespians working in small-budget productions find themselves building sets, it's a little hard to believe that when Hempleman moved to the Twin Cities from New York in 1991, after nearly a decade of working there in the theater, he had planned to trade in the boards of the stage for wood of a more mundane sort.

"I was going to work as a carpenter," he says. "I didn't know that Minneapolis was such a theater town. I was coming here to be with my future wife, who's from here, and to change gears. She sort of pushed me to go to an audition and I kind of got hooked again. I'll bet she's sorry she did."

A week before I interrupt his carpentry, Hempleman, tall and good-looking, pulls up to a south Minneapolis coffee shop on his white Yamaha motorcycle, dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. He's a low-key, laconic guy, but carries himself with an actor's ineffable assurance. While he tucks into a bacon sandwich, we talk about his steady stream of work.

His most high-profile gig was His Girl Friday at the Guthrie, a period-piece newsroom comedy starring Angela Bassett. While the show was overlong, Hempleman's brand of regular-guy charm was well matched with his role as a harmonica-playing newshound. Earlier in the year Hempleman took on the role of producer for Patty Lynch's American Sublime, an Age of Terror drama staged at a downtown Minneapolis art gallery. It was one of the best shows of the year to date, with Brian Goranson directing and Hempleman playing the male lead. Nowhere was Hempleman the craftsman more visible than in a moment when his character, Todd, stood in front of the large fantastic American landscape that visually anchored the set. Hempleman, alone for a moment, lost himself amid the painting's snowcapped peaks, then reached out delicately to hold an eagle racing ahead of approaching storm clouds. I heard an audience member gasp at the delicacy of the gesture.

"Everybody pitched in," Hempleman says of the small core of players who staged the show. He mentions that the painting was probably the biggest expense of the production. "And I think I've sold it to a theater in Philadelphia that's producing the play. That means I've just about broken even." Indeed, during a chat in a theater lobby shortly after the run of American Sublime, Hempleman laughed and told me that the show was a success because "I didn't lose as much money as I thought I would."

Hempleman comes from Asheville, North Carolina, and went to college at Chapel Hill--with this knowledge, it's possible to detect the slightest twang in his relaxed speech. While he's found a home in the tundra, a recent trip back to New York provided an instance of surreality. "A year and a half ago I went back, just before Christmas," he remembers. "I took a walk down my old street, then went to my old building on St. Mark's Place. I went up to the door and, holy shit! My name was still on the buzzer after 15 years. When I tell people that, they always ask if I rang it. No way. I was too afraid some guy named Terry was going to answer."

Somehow it's easy to image the illogic of dreams entering Hempleman's life. While he projects a mellow ease, he also gives the sense of holding a lot in reserve--at one point on the phone, I jokingly accuse him of doing Jedi mind tricks to steer me away from personal questions. As a performer he's best as a normal guy with a couple of screws loose. For Thirst Theater in a Fringe production staged on the roof of Joe's Garage, he played a guy in baggy jean shorts and a T-shirt who had become totally unhinged with paranoia. It was a loose-limbed performance that evoked some of the most nervous laughter of the night. "If a cell phone goes off at the Guthrie, it takes you out of the world of the show," Hempleman says when asked about the challenges of alfresco acting. "But at Joe's Garage you have to just keep going."

During this past Fringe Hempleman also directed Why Actors Can't Love, a bittersweet comedy about two ex-lovers meeting in a hotel room. "I was the last person involved in that project," Hempleman says of the production, which starred Maggie Chestovich and Jim Lichtscheidl. "I went into rehearsals and said, 'You guys are the real thing. People are going to be so thankful.'" This fall Hempleman stars in Same Time, Next Year at the Jungle (opening November 4). It's one of the most-performed plays in the contemporary canon, but inveterate weekend TV watchers will always associate it with the 1978 film starring Alan Alda. This story of a couple that reunites for its annual dirty weekend amid changing times evokes, for some, a whiff of fromage. Hempleman nods at the suggestion, then dispels reservations about the show.

"I thought the same thing," he admits. "Then we did a reading. And I thought it was deeply moving, and it had real insight into the cultural history of America in the post-World War II period." Hempleman catches himself playing pitchman and laughs. "Look, [director] Bain Boehlke can do comedy, he's really funny," he says. "But two things he can't be are glib and light. People are going to see something in this show that they didn't expect."

Hempleman by now has finished his breakfast and iced tea. When asked about what the theater scene has in its future, he shows an unexpected fire.

"A good friend of mine asked me, with all sincerity, how the stage is supposed to compete with NetFlix," he says, his eyes suddenly gone wide. "Come on. Whatever you get from NetFlix, it's not real. It's like a video of a beautiful sandwich versus the taste of a genuine peanut butter and jelly. There's no comparison."

With that, Hempleman and his Yamaha rumble off into the late-summer morning.

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